Education, research and innovation come together in him: Professor Freddy Boey
With NTU’s strong focus on education, research and innovation, it comes as no surprise that Deputy President and Provost Prof Freddy Boey has a sterling track record of breakthrough commercial applications that have given the “made-in-Singapore” label pride of place on the global stage.
The former Chair of the School of Materials Science and Engineering who is a Fellow of Imperial College London has won more than S$36 million in competitive funding for research and developed 25 original patents, the majority of which have been licensed. These patents have also resulted in five spin-off companies.
In between, he has supervised 33 PhDs and mentored 15 post-doctorates. His current biomedical research team comprises 12 PhDs and more than 10 post-doctorates and Senior Research Fellows. About 15 of his past and current students and staff have been or are now involved in their own or his start-up companies.
But Prof Boey, 57, insists it is research and education that remain his abiding passions. “I’m a scientist first,” he says, “and scientists are excited about ideas”.
Prof Boey has been at NTU long enough to witness its transformation from a teaching university into a research university. “It has been very exciting because of the great empowerment this has given our professors and students,” he says.
As the Chair of the School of Materials Science and Engineering from 2005 to 2010, he turned the school into one of the world’s largest materials engineering institutions with about 1,000 undergraduates and close to 250 research students. The school has developed a reputation for solid science that also generates technologies that can be commercialised.
Prof Boey’s own research in biomaterials for medical devices – as well as nanomaterials and nanostructures for cell regeneration, sensing and energy storage – have no doubt helped to raise both the school’s and NTU’s profile internationally, besides generating a buzz in international healthcare.
Take the disposable surgical tissue retractor he invented to keep wounds open during surgery. This was licensed to Insightra Medical Inc, Irvine, California, and sold in the US, India, Japan and Europe.
Patents in hand, he has gone on to found companies such as Amaranth Medical Inc, Adcomp Technology Pte Ltd and Electroactiv Inc to license his various biomedical creations, which include soluble stents that release different drugs for heart patients.
Several of his biomedical devices have received FDA approval and the CE mark. His newest invention, a customisable mesh that improves the outcome of hernia operations by lowering the risk of inflammation and infection, is the first such surgical mesh approved for sale by the US Food and Drug Administration.
Turning research into innovation
Through his work, Prof Boey has seen how it is possible for NTU academics and students to do research at an international level. “Our investors come from around the world, and they have found it compelling to put their money into our research. I am confident in saying that the level of work we do here is right up there with anybody else in the global arena. At NTU, we have a knack for turning ideas into reality.”
For Prof Boey, who received the Public Administration Medal (Silver) in 2010, the best ideas are always global. That is why he prefers NTU’s PhD students to do part of their research overseas. “Educating a PhD student is not like solving a technical problem. It is about learning how to learn – how to define, understand and solve problems. In today’s context, it means knowing the key people from around the world who are relevant to a particular problem, whether they are researchers or otherwise, and connecting with them.”
Prof Boey’s spirit of experimentation is matched by a prolific output and paired with the belief that his work should improve the lives of others. One of his prized inventions is a piezoelectric heart pump developed with NTU colleagues that was the world’s smallest when it was unveiled in 2003. At 50 grams, the pump is four times lighter and uses less power than conventional heart pumps. A more recent innovation is a fully biodegradable device that helps to plug heart defects like a hole in the heart. To date, his hole-in-the-heart plug is the only fully biodegradable device that has been shown to work in animals, and it is being tested in human trials.
Prof Boey’s other inventions include a coronary Cobalt Chromium stent that can release two drugs, licensed to a Californian Medical Group; micropumps for thermal management in consumer electronic gadgets, which have been licensed to a Hawaiian company; and microfluidic and biomedical devices. He has also teamed up with the renowned Mayo Clinic to develop implants for the controlled release of cardiac peptides specially designed to treat heart diseases, through a joint start-up, CardioRev Pte Ltd.
Going the distance
Prof Boey has gone to Silicon Valley in the United States in search of investment funding for his projects – with success. In addition, over the last three years, he has won more than S$36 million in research grants, including a prestigious S$10 million individual grant under the National Research Foundation’s (NRF) Competitive Research Programme to develop fully biodegradable cardiovascular implants for hole-in-the-heart conditions.
He has also clinched a S$20 million NRF Technion–Singapore grant for his research in nanomedicine for cardiovascular diseases, and a S$1.25 million grant from the NRF Translational Flagship Project to make cataract surgery safer.
Prof Boey has published 335 top journal papers with a citation of 6,044 and H-Index of 40. Besides leading research and administrative projects, he serves as a Director on the boards of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore, DSO National Laboratories and the NTU Temasek Defence Lab, and is a founding member of the newly set up Singapore Academy of Engineers. He is also a member of the SPRING Singapore Technology Policy Advisory Committee and has been on the President’s Science and Technology Awards committee since 2007.
Prof Boey is on the panel of several national funding and award panels and has previously chaired the National A*STAR Grants Review Committee. He holds the title of Honorary Professor at both the University of Indonesia and the Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications. He was an ad-hoc member of the inaugural University Academic Advisory Committee. He was also an appointed member of both the University Blue Ribbon Commission and the Blue Ribbon Implementation Commission.
Prof Boey holds an honorary doctorate from Loughborough University. In November 2011, he received the Distinguished Alumni of the Year Award from Monash University at the 50th anniversary celebrations of its Faculty of Engineering. The award recognises his achievements as a teacher, researcher and innovator, including his exceptional contributions to nanomedicine, as well as his volunteer work since his student days.